Forming and developing relationships takes time not money. In the United States we are great at making money, running businesses and increasing productivity, and have  57 Nobel Laureates in Economics to prove it. The rest of the world agrees and beats a path to our universities to learn how. 

Though we are the richest nation in history, however, our people don’t get much paid vacation, and more than half don’t use the small amount they do get! Contrast this with western Europe where most workers take August off for family vacation time. As an immigrant from Ireland, I was struck by this difference and concluded that “Americans live to work while Europeans work to live.”

Is there any connection here with the fact that relationships in America are in deep crisis? Only 46 percent of our children grow up in a family with both parents present all the time. For Black Americans the figure is only 17 percent. As a culture we excel at work and income but fail miserably in relationships, even as we are very generous with our money.

We lead in helping to pull the world’s remaining half billion out of extreme poverty, yet are digging a cultural grave for ourselves, as the  Senate’s alarming report, Trends in Deaths of Despair (aka suicide) reveals. For us, Mother Teresa of Calcutta’s remark holds true: “There are many in the world who are dying for a piece of bread but there are many more dying for a little love.”

Yet, there may be a way of harnessing our “work” strength to resolve our relationship weakness. 

Recently I had an epiphany while trying to help a friend who had “screwed up” his marriage and family life. He was trying hard to put it back together, but in his anxiety was jumping all over the place and getting nowhere except into deeper trouble.

I was close to throwing in the towel, for nothing I did helped. Then a grace came: “What are the most important relationships in your life?” I asked.  He answered, “God and my wife.” Then I said, “Why not ask your wife, ‘What is the one thing I can do for you today that will bring our relationship closer to what you want it to be?’” He liked that. He has been doing it every day and says his wife reports their relationship is the best it has been for years. By prioritizing the work he needed to do for their relationship, he sped ahead.

Then it occurred to him to go further; why not look at all the other relationships in his life and, mentally, ask and answer the same question: for his children (one by one), his boss (i.e. his work), and so on.  Soon he had all his tasks rank-ordered but in a way that fit both “US productivity standards” as well as his own need to have the people in his life happier with him.

He concluded: “There is no point in doing anything before ‘the single most needed thing’ in any of these relationships.”  When he surveyed them all, he found he had his whole life covered, in order of importance and with peace in his soul.

I have been mulling this over and applying it. Here is what I have learned so far:

  • All our tasks (productivity) can be looked at relationally.
  • Simultaneously every important relationship has a task waiting to bring it to the next level.
  • Relationships give us the most productive rank-ordering of what we should be doing.  Everybody (wife, bosses, friends, God) will likely agree with the ordering.
  • Our productivity will soar, for we will be at peace and able to concentrate.
  • It is a fine way to love your neighbour.

The experiment is still ongoing for me and for my friend. I suspect that with constant practice it will have a profound re-orienting effect.  I wish I had “discovered” it when I was much younger. I would have lived my life differently — with better work and richer relationships. 

Pat Fagan is the director of the Marriage and Religion Research Initiative at The Catholic University of America. He is publisher and editor of Republished from the MARRI blog.

Dr. Pat Fagan has been a grade school and college teacher, a therapist specializing in child, family and marital issues, executive director of a small think tank, a Senate staffer, the Deputy Assistant...